Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan on Thursday said that the federal government had stopped the implementation of Section 20 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) Ordinance and decided to consult all stakeholders.
On February 18, the government promulgated an ordinance amending PECA to make online “defamation” of authorities and public office holders a criminal offence with harsh penalties.
Under the (Amendment) Ordinance, 2022, online public defamation had also been made a cognisable and a non-bailable offence. It also had increased jail time for degrading civil, military institutions from three years to five years.
Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah heard the petitions of media organisations, including the Pakistan Bar Association (PBA), against the amendment ordinance today.
Director Cyber Crime Babar Bakht informed the court that about 244,000 complaints had been registered in the last three years, out of which 94,000 were under Section 20. However, he said that no arrests were made which were only possible if certain clauses were added with the said section.
Justice Minallah said that TV programmes do not come under said section and that the media personality Mohsin Baig’s FIR was a classic case of misuse of power.
“Why is this power being used only for the benefit of the public office holders?” the judge asked. “Please inform which section was applied in Mohsin Baig’s case? [Reham Khan’s] book may have had some good things about the minister as well but the FIA assumed that something ill was written and arrested the person on the same day without inquiry. Did you analyse the whole situaion before the complaint was filed?” Justice Minallah inquired.
The IHC CJ also said that the complainant in the case himself was defaming the prime minister and only those with a bad mind will misinterpret what was written in the book.
“Where are you trying to take this country? Where there is no criticism? The world is moving towards de-criminalisation [of defamation],” the judge remarked.
During the hearing, AGP Khan informed the court that he had met the premier and apprised him on the issue.
“When this ordinance came into effect, we found out that this law could be misused. I raised three or four issues before the PM myself,” said Khan.
The AGP maintained that according to him, no person or TV programmes need to be regulated under PECA. “I do not think this amendment can be sustained, we are ready to talk to all media representatives and stakeholders on the issue,” he said.
He further added that when the premier was apprised of the issue, he himself expressed astonishment over Section 20 of the ordinance and questioned how this was allowed to happen. “I told the PM that it was our fault,” he claimed.
The attorney general informed the court that the government was ready to consult all the stakeholders regarding PECA and that a commission would be formed without whose recommendation no action will be taken.
Former high court judges and civil society members could also be included in the formed forum, the AJP said. “I have apprised the prime minister that some things will be retracted from the ordinance. We will also take PFUJ, CPNE and all stakeholders on board,” he added.
Justice Minallah said that no public figure can resort to criminal defamation for their benefit. He asked why should anyone even be bothered by what is being written on social media as all political parties, in fact, encourage their social media teams.
“If political parties ask their supporters to stop defaming individuals, then whatever is happening on social media would be resolved,” the judge said.
He maintained that the attorney general has assured the court on behalf of the FIA and the federal government that Section 20 of the ordinance will not affect anyone.
“Maybe if all stakeholders sit together; this ordinance would be abolished. But if it remains and defamation is made a criminal offense then all politicians, as well as v-loggers, will be in jail. This court cannot allow Pakistan to turn into India,” the judge said.
PFUJ’s lawyer prayed that the AGP himself had said that he doesn’t defend ‘half of the ordinance’. “We are ready to sit with him,” the counsel said.
The attorney general assured that the amended ordinance will not be implemented till a report consisting of final arguments is presented before the court and the FIA will not make any arrest under Section 20.
To this, the IHC CJ said to let the AGP try if he had been given a mandate by the PM, whereas the petition will remain pending in the meantime.
Subsequently, the court adjourned the hearing of the case till March 14 (Monday) and directed the AGP to make final arguments regarding Section 20 of the PECA Amendment Ordinance.